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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1038

Senator FURNER (Queensland) (17:31): It gives me great pleasure to rise in the debate this afternoon to speak on this motion to refer the provisions of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill to a Senate committee. In particular there are a number of areas and facts I need to cover off on. This afternoon in this chamber what has been described in many arguments is a fallacy. We heard the view from the previous speaker, Senator Cash, that people, whether they be in organisations or whether they be workers, had nothing to fear. I can speak from some authority after having been for nearly half my working life, 19 years, a union official for three distinguished unions. The first was the Transport Workers Union Queensland branch. The second was the Queensland Police Union where I was the industrial officer. Then I was with the National Union of Workers Queensland branch, initially as an organiser, subsequently moving on as a senior organiser, then becoming branch secretary and then the assistant vice-president of the federal branch of that union. To some degree, even at the age of 18, I was following industrial relations. It was a subject I was interested in and it was an area where I saw changes in regard to what happened to workers and what happened to industrial laws when government changed.

As an example, I will reflect back to 1996 when the then Howard government came into this place and made changes to industrial laws which was the Workplace Relations Act 1996. As a result of that act there were a whole host of changes to the right of entry requirements to workplaces for organisations. There were changes to introduce individual contracts, which were known as Australian workplace agreements or AWAs. The point I am getting to in relation to this particular bill is the consistency with my home state of Queensland. In that year, what followed—

Senator Mason interjecting

Senator FURNER: Thank you, Senator Mason. No doubt you will know the history that I am coming to. In the following year the then Queensland industrial relations minister—or it might have been the workplace relations minister—Santo Santoro mirrored the federal Workplace Relations Act 1996. He mirrored it to the extent that he did not have the competence to make fundamental changes. All he did was turn it over and add a new title. There were only three changes: the title of the act became the Workplace Relations Act 1997; the right of entry became 48 hours instead of 24 hours; and the name for Australian workplace agreements changed to QWAs, Queensland workplace agreements. Subsequently, the minister moved on and became a senator. I think to some extent the senator, at the time, fell foul of the standards that Prime Minister John Howard put in place and, I understand, had to leave this chamber. I am sure those on the other side might correct me—

Senator Edwards: You would welcome governance then, Mark.

Senator FURNER: If you want to hear some history, you might get some knowledge. Do not be an oxygen thief all your life.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Whish-Wilson ): Order! Through the chair please, Senator.

Senator FURNER: The senator was moved on and, as I recall, was replaced by Senator Boyce. That is not what we are in the chamber to talk about, but I am using it as an example of how there are consistencies in place in regard to federal and state legislation.

To some degree I see a similar stench to what is being proposed in this bill to what has been implemented in Queensland under their current LNP government. It is a similar stench as there are now requirements in Queensland for organisations and for organisations' branch committees and management—similar to their executive—on how they conduct their business and the impost placed upon them to do basic functions. We are talking about people in many circumstances who come off the job and put in their own time after work. In many cases they are shift workers and come from various backgrounds. I heard Senator Lines give examples the other day about her union with people like cleaners, cooks et cetera.

I have had the same experience where I have seen people come off the shop floor who are committed to making sure those unions are run appropriately, committed to making sure they are not falling foul of the laws that we have put in place, whether that is this government or previous governments, regarding the obligations of industrial organisations—trade unions, as I know them. They need to fulfil their obligations to report on the activities and the financial status of their organisation. Those reports are submitted, as you would probably know, on a yearly basis to the industrial commissions or, in this case, Fair Work Australia and audited by reputable auditors to make sure they are doing the right thing for their members. I remember when I was secretary of the NUW having that obligation. I took that on board as a responsible task that I was proud to be able to do, and in many cases I fulfilled better financial requirements for the union by investing moneys and looking at different avenues to make sure the union was kept in good stead.

I was an industrial officer with the Queensland Police Union. They refer to their body as the executive of the union. Sworn police officers—in my view, the most reputable pillars of our society—came off the job on a fortnightly basis, heard reports and were responsible for the finances of that union. The legislation in Queensland has put an impediment, an onerous task, upon those people to be accountable for things that really have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the union. Consistent with this legislation and that in Queensland, it is an impediment and an onerous impost that is being placed on people who are just trying to have some sort of accountability, some sort of responsibility and competence, in an organisation they love and respect.

Talking about police, we have just gone through a situation in Queensland where the government awarded a 2.2 per cent wage increase to the officers in Queensland. Conversely, the LNP parliamentarians in Queensland awarded themselves an $11,000-a-year increase. So you can see that there is a difference with what the LNP government do for themselves, lining their pockets with substantial wage increases on the back of people like hardworking police officers and providing them with only a 2.2 per cent increase. That is where the consistency sits in these sorts of arguments. If we had an equal playing field across the world, we would not see situations where this type of legislation would be put up. Everything would be fair and reasonable.

Going back to Senator Cash's comments about nothing to fear and trade unions having their say—in particular, in the hearing on this bill—I have a criticism as a senator. I am sure it is something that is recognised by most senators, and that is that, when you go into an inquiry, you are frustrated with the time you have to interview witnesses. In many cases, I have been to hearings where there might be six senators and time is divided up for about 30 to 45 minutes for each witness. That is no fault of the senators. That is a good example of senators showing an interest in attending those hearings. But, in the case of this particular bill, I understand that there was limited time for senators to delve deeply into the concerns that were raised by the trade unions that attended and the trade unions that put in submissions to this inquiry and limited time to look at examples and positions that were presented by some employer groups.

The employer organisation the Australian Industry Group, AiG, which I dealt with when I was an organiser with the Transport Workers Union in Queensland and also as secretary of the National Union of Workers, submitted concerns to the inquiry and said the proposed changes would operate unfairly with respect to officers or registered organisations due to the onerous disclosure regime. In many cases members think employer organisations are the enemy. They are not the enemy; they are organisations representing employers, and, as people who have worked through trade unions, we accept the position of representing members. Employer organisations equally have an obligation to represent the employers that they are entitled to represent. But here you have the AiG coming to an inquiry sounding like a trade union, expressing concerns that issues associated with this particular bill are too onerous. They also expressed concerns that the bill would impede the ability of officers to carry out administration of their organisations and could seriously affect their mostly volunteer membership.

Once again I go back to the argument I put about people who come off their jobs—sometimes shift workers, sometimes day workers—and go into union offices, generally at night, which is when I did my branch committee and management meetings, after doing a hard day's work, having to trawl through reports from officials, look at the finances of the union on a monthly basis and then, of course, at an annual general meeting go through the overall audit and also the annual report of the union. That is sometimes an onerous task and, in the circumstances of that time of the day, it is sometimes difficult for those people to have some sort of understanding of the issues.

Recommendation No. 1 of the committee reads:

The Committee recommends that, consistent with the Corporations Act 2001, material personal interest disclosures should only be required to be made to those officers whose duties relate to the financial management of the organisation. Such disclosures should be recorded in the minutes of the meetings of those officers and should be made available to members on request.

What we find with the LNP government in Queensland is that there was delving into the personal lives of those people on the branch committee of management or, in the case of the Police Union, the executive—going into whether they have share portfolios and what bank accounts they have. It is so invasive when that sort of position applies to legislation and when people that are not employed by the industrial organisation and are merely on the committee of management are scrutinised to that degree.

It is an absolute disgrace, and this is just another example of what is happening in Queensland. There are numerous examples I could use, but I do not have the time today. There is the bikies legislation, where people who are not even in a bike group are being pulled up alongside the road. Just the other day up in Townsville there was an incident involving a soldier, a member of the Patriots motorcycle club—a club that I have been out to on the north side on many occasions to lay wreaths at functions on Vietnam Veterans Day. A motorcycle rider who had no patch on his back but was a member of the Patriots motorcycle club and a serving Army private—I think with 1RAR in Townsville—was pulled up by the police and scrutinised for about 40 minutes and more or less interrogated because of laws like this that have the capacity to go beyond the reasonable intent that was legislated for.

These are the reasons why, when bills like this appear before committees, they need to be thoroughly examined, not given a five-minute exercise where the committee hears from a couple of witnesses and flicks the legislation through to be gazetted. We need to have time to examine this. That is the intent of the motion on the books today: to make sure that appropriate time is allocated for those witnesses—and there may be others that wish to have the opportunity to come along and provide evidence on behalf of their organisations or on behalf of employer organisations that may express similar concerns to those that have been expressed by AiG at this particular hearing.

When we were in government we introduced the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2012. Although I was not a member of the committee that examined that piece of legislation, I recall having a look at the legislation and hearing the debate in this chamber. I believed at that time that that was a fair and reasonable position to come to: to identify unscrupulous organisations and, if they are out there, to make sure they are doing the right thing. But I think it is a bit tough to come in here and paint with a broad brush, saying that unions are corrupt and are doing the wrong thing, and that is the general tone that I hear from some of those opposite. I think that is unfair to organisations that are doing the right thing. Having spent half my lifetime as a trade union official prior to coming to this place, I have never seen any examples where officials, branch committees of management or executives have done the wrong thing in regard to union members. It is such a privilege to be in a position where you are looking after workers who, in many cases, are on the bones of their backside trying to make a living. It is a privilege and an honour to represent those people and make sure you are looking after them. So why would you go out of your way to try to make it more difficult for those members? But when you listen to those opposite—'You've got nothing to fear; all trade unions are corrupt'—you would believe there is some reason to have this type of legislation presented so that the government can fix what all the officials of trade unions out there are perceived to be doing. This is where this type of legislation is wrong.

Before I get on another track, I have one other comment. The AiG suggested that the bill should be amended in accordance with the ILO Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, which specifies that 'laws regulating registered organisations must not inhibit the ability of workers and employers to join unions and employer organisations, nor restrict their right to elect representatives and organise the administration of their organisations'. If you examine what happened under those opposite last time they were in government, with Work Choices, there were many breaches of the ILO conventions. We are a signatory to those conventions, and it was probably always embarrassing for those people that travelled to Geneva and had to explain the reasons why those conventions were breached and why a government that was a signatory to the conventions would allow itself to be put in a position where people were denied the right to organise, to have laws on unreasonable and unfair dismissal, to organise and to be represented. Those are four of the ILO conventions that were breached by the previous Howard government when they had Work Choices.

Our concern is that this is just the thin end of the wedge and the start of another wave of Work Choices coming through under this LNP government. People will wise up to the government and realise, as they did in 2005 and 2006 leading up to the introduction of Work Choices, what this government is about. They will understand, when further legislation is presented to this chamber and to the House of Representatives, that this is another agenda of doing away with workers' rights and putting impediments on workers' organisations—and in some cases concerns have been expressed by employer organisations. It will stop, because people will not stand for this sort of legislation and there will be a groundswell of people seeking to make sure it is not implemented.